Fishing laws: Can you keep fish from a river?

With the myriad of hunting and fishing laws, the ins and outs of making sure you’re staying within the law can be confusing.

Can you keep fish from a river? Yes is the short answer, but the true answer is more complex. How many fish you can catch, whether or not you can put the remains in the water, and more are regulated by state law.

Those questions can be solved with a quick call to your state’s wildlife resource center, but there are other aspects that are just as pressing, such as fishing methods. Read on to find out which fishing methods are banned in pretty much every state.

Which Methods Can’t I Use While River Fishing?

Some might say that how someone fishes is pretty much up to them, but the fishing regulations would disagree. Below, find out more about these banned methods.


This practice has been banned for years and involves dropping a live electric wire into the water.

The electricity shocks the fish, they float to the top, and the “fisherman” uses a net or some other aspect to get the fish out of the water.

First of all, this isn’t fishing, and second of all, this method can be used to completely wipe out an area of its fish, thereby ruining the possibility of sustainable fishing over a period of years.

This practice is banned across the nation, but, unfortunately, there are still people who use this banned practice.

Certain Traps

Some traps also cannot be used, and while this–again–varies by state, most traps are either completely outlawed or must follow extremely strict rules.

Traps for the open ocean are less regulated, but legal freshwater traps are unlikely to catch very many game fish.

Bait traps, typically used for catching minnows, are allowed but very strictly regulated. Additionally, any game fish caught in a minnow trap must be released, which can be a bit frustrating.

Specific Types of Hooks

A variety of states  in the U.S. require single-hook lines or have limited/banned double or treble hooks.

This is mostly to protect the fish, particularly in the areas that use catch-and-release methods.

These areas are growing, so it’s important to pay attention to these laws.

Even if your state doesn’t ban double or treble hooks or multiple hooks on the same line, it might be a good idea not to use them anyway, especially if you are more personally invested in catch-and-release methods.

Certain Nets

Cast nets can be used to catch bait, but game fish must be released.

Other types of nets, like seines and gill nets, are heavily regulated in a way they are not when used for saltwater fishing. The openings in the mesh is most likely what’s regulated to restrict what types of fish can be caught in the net.

Basically though, there are some good practices for what is and is not permissible in most states regarding rivers. Continue reading to find out more.

What Are Best Practices While River Fishing?

There are several easy steps before you go fishing in the river to bring home the trout–or whatever fish you prefer. 

Make the Call

Before you go fishing anywhere, calling the local wildlife resource center is definitely best practice.

In this day and age, when information is just a click or a phone call away, pleading ignorance when you knew where to find the information will likely not put you in wildlife patrol’s good graces.

Additionally, even if the river is fishable a few miles downstream or upstream, that particular area may be off-limits for a special reason, like a specific fish breed happens to be spawning at that time.

Even a cove may be off-limits if it is privately owned. As with hunting or fishing in a pond, you must obtain written permission from the owner in order to fish in their river, no matter how great the fish population are.

Verbal consent is not enough in the eyes of the law, especially because people can always change their mind if you do something untoward on their property, and showing that you had permission to be there will help your case.

The local wildlife office can help you navigate the intricacies of where is and is not permissible to fish, as well as any other specific questions you may have.

Use Your Eyes

Most times, if a river doesn’t allow fishing but has trails alongside or leading up to it, signs will be posted in various places indicating the ban.

Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for signs like this, even if they may be overgrown somewhat by weeds, ivy, etc.

Know the Area

If you live in the mountains and you are trying to fish in the river in, say, summer, know if there are rafting or kayaking trips coming downstream.

Particularly if you are trying to use a net, or are fly fishing, this can cause some major problems for obvious reasons.

Make sure you know what other recreational activities people like to do on the river you’re planning to fish in, and a potential disaster can be easily avoided.

Be Aware of Fishing Seasons

Most areas have specific seasons for fishing, because of spawning.

Fish spawning is the reproductive season when females lay eggs, and you could seriously disturb the life cycle if you fish during the spawning season.

Lest you think that it doesn’t matter, the reason that fishing is banned during the spawning season is so that there will be fish for years to come.

Know the Bag Limits of the Fish You’re Looking For

In most states, there are a bag or catch limits for different types of fish. Going over these bag limits can lead to fines and even your fishing license being revoked with continued offenses.

For example, in Washington, the lingcod catch limit for Marine Area 4 is 22 inches in size, 2 fish per angler per day.

Take note that these limits can change based on a specific area within the state, as seen above, and they are subject to change during the season itself if too many fish are being caught in the early parts of the season.

Don’t Put Remains In the Water

While not all states prohibit putting fish remains in the water–aka the guts and bones left over after you clean your catch–it is still a good idea to not just throw them into the water

In general, the best thing to do with fish entrails is to wrap it up in a plastic bag and dispose of it in your household trash. 

If you don’t want it stinking up your household trash, you can put it in a Ziploc bag in the freezer until trash day.

If you’re camping, then this is the time to leave the fish entrails in the water IF allowed in that area.

Leave No Trace

This practice has been in place for years as a way to respect the area you’re in but has been popularized in recent years.

Clean up everything around you when you’re fishing, whether you actually left it or not.

This way, wildlife patrol will have nothing but good things to say about you and whoever you’re fishing with.

Fishing Licenses

While it may seem obvious, the discussion of best practices while river fishing is a moot point if you don’t have your fishing license.

Every state requires a fishing license, but there are some differences in terms of what is required.

In North Carolina, for example, you must obtain a fishing license if you have been in North Carolina for more than six months, and non-residents visiting the area must also obtain a fishing license. Out-of-state licenses are not applicable.

Fishing license exist for states to know that the anglers in their state are aware of the regulations and requirements specific to that state.

Furthermore, it allows states to be more aware of how many anglers are present in their state and help them to adjust bag limits and other regulations accordingly.

When obtaining a fishing license for your state, there are a few important things to pay special attention to:

  1. If non-resident or out-of-state fishing licenses are allowed
  2. Bag limits in place
  3. Renewal of license
  4. Any restricted areas

These aspects relate to the list of best practices outlined above and will help you be a sustainable angler as well as a legal one.

There is one important exception to the fishing license listed above: national parks. Read on to find out more.

National Park Rivers: Other Rules Apply

National parks are kind of like military bases overseas: they have their own special rules that may be exceptions to that state’s fishing license regulations.

Usually, a state’s fishing license course will roughly outline the specific regulations regarding a national park in their state, but it is still a good idea to do your own research.

Below, check out a list of aspects that can be different when in a national park:

  • Bag limits —- Bag limits can be different in a national park, especially if they are using the national park as a way to increase the fish population.
  • Catch-and-release —- Some national park rivers don’t allow you to keep the fish at all; fishing is purely recreational, and game fish must be released.
  • Fishing seasons —- Once again, depending on what the national park’s aims are regarding fish, the seasons may be shorter than the state the park is in.
  • Off-limits areas —- A national park river may have certain areas that are completely off-limits, either due to overfishing or another aim of that national park.

As always, it’s vital to know the area in which you’re planning to fish, and double-check with local wildlife or on the website for the spot if possible.

Of course, having the knowledge of the area is of little use if you are struggling to catch the fish in the first place. Read on to see tips and tricks for river fishing.

River Fishing Tips & Tricks

When river fishing, certain tips, and tricks will increase your chances of a successful day.

Keep reading to find out more.

Use Backwater Areas

Backwater areas, like eddies, coves, etc., are the best places to find fish, especially if the current is stronger in the main body of water.

In a river, this is likely to be true, especially if there have been heavy rains recently.

Fish in the Shade

A lot of fish prefer to be in the shade, especially during summer.

Even outside of the summer season, fish like to be in the shade because of the higher level of protection from predators.

For example, fish are more likely to be abundant near piles of rocks, trees, debris, etc.

These places are good to aim for with your lures in order to have a higher probability.

Current Shifts

Shifts in current or spots where currents merge are the best place to find fish.

If you pay attention to the spots where the river merges with another river or even with just a stream that feeds into the main river, you will have much better luck.

But…what if you’re not trying to eat the fish? What if you want to keep them and breed them for yourself?

Keeping Fish to Breed

In the event that you are not as interested in consuming your newly caught fish–or at least not all of it–there is the option of taking them home to breed them.

The laws and regulations exist to help prevent the extinction of fish, both freshwater and saltwater, but these laws are not always as effective as one might hope.

Although many aquarists prefer to have tropical fish, some are choosing to use their resources and skills to breed and replenish freshwater fish.

You can keep freshwater fish to breed, but the bag limit for the fish you’re trying to keep is the same as it is for catching fish to eat.

As you might guess, it’s important to check the laws for your area and state.

Depending on how big you want your bred fish population to get, you may have to register with the state, especially if you’re wanting to sell the fish or charge people to fish for them in a smaller habitat.

If you do want to keep your river fish, keep reading to find some more information about the best way to go about it.

Catching Your Fish to Breed

Since you’re wanting to keep your fish alive, you need to make sure you use single hooks, and artificial lures are your best bet.

The reason for this is that the live bait hooks are deeper and could cause a much bigger issue for the fish when you take the hook out.

Be Prepared With Proper Transportation

Once you catch the fish, you need to put it in a large container of water.

Keep in mind that, depending on how far your drive is, you need to be prepared to open the cooler or what-have-you for oxygenation for the fish.

Depending on how large your fish are and how many you have, you may need more than one large cooler to avoid overcrowding and rapid oxygen depletion.

Additionally, the water in your cooler should be similar in makeup and temperature to the water you’re fishing in. Obviously, your best bet here is to simply fill the cooler with water from the river.

When You’re Home

Your freshwater fish, since they were caught from the river, will not be used to store-bought fish food.

Typically, what’s best is if you can feed them what they would find in their natural environment.

For example, largemouth bass actually require other live fish for food and, therefore, will not thrive on fish food used for house fish like goldfish and beta fish.

Research the species you have and make sure that the pH level of your water and the temperature is in the proper range for that species.

The wrong temperature can, at the very least, cause your fish to become sick or even die.

With these tips and tricks, you will be well on your way to keeping the fish you caught alive and ready to breed.

Keep: To Eat, To Breed, To Enjoy

Regardless of what your purpose is for keeping the fish, you catch at your favorite river spots, being conscious of the local and state regulations will keep you well within the boundaries of the law.

The last thing you want is to have your fishing license confiscated because you went over the bag limit or fished in a restricted area; no one wants to be on the wrong side of the wildlife patrol, after all.

Whether you’re keeping the fish to fry or to breed, you can rest comfortably in the knowledge that you have done your research, and you know the ins and outs of how to river fish properly.

Good luck and happy fishing!

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